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Analysis

Applied’s Khyati Sundaram on how to truly de-bias recruitment

Hint: you need to do more than anonymize CVs.

Allie Nawrat

Applied CEO Sundaram.
Credit: Applied.

Unleash Your PotentialSundaram shares her own personal struggles to get hired, and wants to ensure future generations don’t suffer.

In the middle of 2018, Khyati Sundaram decided to closed down FOSHO, a startup she had founded, and began applying for jobs. She focused on selling her skills garnered from her time as an entrepreneur, and previous roles in the banking and finance sector.

But she received no replies, and was ghosted by companies and recruiters. “It was just heartbreaking,” Sundaram tells UNLEASH. “I must have applied for over 100 jobs in eight months. It just went into a black hole, and I never seemed to get any responses.”

She started working with a recruiter – named Bob for the purposes of this article – who asked for her CV and a cover letter, which Sundaram spent days rewriting.

When Bob didn’t call for a few days, Sundaram continuously chased him. After finally getting hold of him, he told her: “Your CV doesn’t fit anywhere, I can’t present it – you won’t get hired.”

Khyati Sundaram, now CEO of Applied.

This was utterly demoralizing for Sundaram: “It was then that I realized that everything in hiring was broken.” She attests this is not a unique experience, and is commonplace for women in general, but specifically women of color.

She notes that the recruitment system “has taught people to assess proxies that sit on a piece of paper, and if that piece of paper doesn’t look the part, someone somewhere Is dissuaded from even calling you for an interview.

“Surely somewhere was the right fit for my skills?”

The existence of discrimination in hiring is even more shocking given it’s not only morally right to hire a diverse workforce, but also makes excellent business sense.

Sundaram and Applied

“It is devastating to see women, and particularly women of color, who don’t look the part, sound the part or fit a certain mold get discriminated again. It might not be intentional, but it is because of systemic issues ingrained for decades and centuries,” notes Sundaram.

As a result of her realization that hiring is broken, Sundaram began to research the systemic biases that prevent people from getting jobs. She quickly understood that companies and candidates need tools that work for the 21st century, not those like CVs that were created hundreds of years ago.

During this process, she came across Applied, a recruitment solution that aims to “recruit ethnically, empirically and efficiently” through unbiased hiring. It showed her that the solutions to systemic bias in recruitment “are not rocket science”.

Sundaram says she found the application process so refreshing – Applied uses its own HR tech platform when recruiting.

“I did not have to apply with a CV, I did not have to talk about my past experience”, she says. “I was only tested on my skills and had to answer a few questions to help me demonstrate my skill level.”

Sundaram was appointed head of product in early 2019, and was promoted to CEO in January 2020.

She is clear that Applied practices what it preaches in terms of diversity. It has a 50% female workforce, flexible working to accommodate everyone’s needs – including mental and physical wellbeing – and a transparent pay structure.

The company also leverages HR tech beyond its own platform to support its employees. Examples include Asana and Spill, a mental wellbeing tool that operates through Slack, and is also used by the likes of Bulb, Depop, Citymapper, and Huel.

Beyond anonymizED CVS

While there are lots of products and companies on the market that claim to eliminate bias in recruitment, Sundaram believes Applied is different because it goes a lot further than just anonymizing CVs to remote names and personal identities.

She claims that doing this doesn’t get rid of all signifiers.

For example, if a candidate has huge gaps in their CV, it is possible that employers could assume they are a woman coming back to work after having children, and therefore could still decide to discriminate against the candidate without knowing their name or gender.

“We’ve had people at Applied who were out for two years on maternity leave, and they have said that if some recruiter doesn’t identify with a two-year gap, you don’t get called for interviews,” notes Sundaram.

Instead, Applied is an “end-to-end hiring solution” that goes beyond assessments and anonymizing CVs. It has been “built from the ground up for tackling bias from every angle,” states Sundaram.

“We start with helping you source [candidates] more inclusively by writing inclusive job descriptions, we make sure you’re assessing people on skills – what really matters, not what their CV says about them – and we make sure you run structured interviews such that bias doesn’t creep in later in the funnel.”

The assessment side is predictive and is “infused with data science and behavioural science”. This builds trust and fairness into the process, meaning candidates tend to be more engaged.

Traditional hiring via a CV sift would miss 60% of Applied hires based on a randomised control trial, according to the company’s own benchmarks. In addition, attraction and selection of diverse candidates using Applied is between two and four times the UK benchmark.

Trustworthy and fair recruitment is an excellent way to retain talent, as people feel valued before they even start work. Applied claims that its first-year employee turnover rates are five times lower than the UK benchmark.

Ambitions for the future

Currently, Applied operates in more than 10 countries. It currently de-biases recruitment for around 200 customers, including The Wellcome Trust, Penguin Random House, Condé Nast, and Centrica, and has handled 400,000 applications. But since bias in recruitment is a global solution, Sundaram and the company have ambitions to be a global company.

It is important to Sundaram that “the world understands that there is a changing landscape of what HR means and what hiring means”. To do that “we have to break ground in multiple international avenues as soon as possible.” The US is the company’s next focus.

Thinking generally about bias and recruitment, Sundaram believes that tech has revolutionized this space, and will continue to do so if bolstered with the latest research. Attacking the problem from multiple angles, as tech can, “is not always possible when doing things manually”.

She is also optimistic for the future because “for the longest time HR has been relegated to the corner” – but a shift is happening. It is now clear to the C-suite that “people are the most important thing in your business – every person you hire makes or breaks a company: the costs are very high”.

Sundaram’s goal for Applied is to have a solution that cracks the problem of biased recruitment, because “it would change the face of society at large” for the better.

Ultimately, it is high time that the best person for the role should get the job in question. It makes no moral, business or rational sense that race, gender or disability should be a factor in the hiring decision.

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